Vancouver writer Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the acclaimed story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth and the editor of the award-winning Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. Her second book, Better Living through Plastic Explosives, was a Giller Prize finalist. Her fiction has been widely anthologized and won National Magazine Awards. Zsuzsi was the inaugural Frank O’Connor International Short Story Fellow for Cork, Ireland, in 2016. Her novel, The Beguiling, will be published by Penguin Canada in September.
The Beguiling, Zsuzsi Gartner’s electrifying debut novel, takes readers for a wild ride with urban-gothic flair and delectably wicked humour.
Interviewed by Mieke DeVries.
Mieke DeVries (MD): It’s difficult to know where a story really starts,” you write in The Beguiling. Where did this novel begin for you? What were the seeds of this novel?
Zsuzsi Gartner (ZG): The initial idea, or impulse, has disappeared into the mists of time. I honestly can’t recall when or how (or even why) it came to me. At the time I started working on what would become The Beguiling (working title: St. Lucy: a novel in confessions), in 2012, I was noodling around with other novel ideas and it was the one that seemed to have the most staying power, the one that I thought I wouldn’t become bored with in the many years it takes me to write a book, due to the multiplicity of voices and styles and non-linear structure.
MD: What/who influenced you during the writing of this book?
ZG: This would not by obvious to anyone reading The Beguiling, but Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet had a big influence on my writing of my narrator, Lucy. Her novels made me want to write as brutally honestly as I could about motherhood, love, the way people move through the world making their dreadful (intentional and unintentional) mistakes. Another enormous influence was the three months I spent in Cork, Ireland in late 2016 as the inaugural International Frank O’Connor Fellow. West Cork, the people, the old city of Shandon where I lived, got into my veins and ended up becoming a seminal part of the novel. Getting a dog about a year after I started working on the book also changed me – if it wasn’t for Banda (who turned seven today!) so many things about The Beguiling would be different, and perhaps lesser. And there are so many more visible and invisible influences.
MD: You have a razor sharp wit that brings levity and humour to the darkest of topics. Do you intentionally weave humour into your writing? How do you maintain a balance between dark and light?
ZG: Most intentionally. There’s a part about a third of the way through The Beguiling where Lucy visits her cousin’s grave and wonders what she would like on her own tombstone: “Something simple, maybe a relief of one of those tragedy/comedy masks and the words: mea maxima culpa.” Tragedy written within humour, or lacking in wit, is simply melodrama. As for balancing out the darkness and levity, that comes in the revising when I have to cut out at least of third of my funnies. It’s a matter of tone, which is very tricky to get the balance of right. I do work at that. I’ve spent my entire writing career trying to balance comedy and tragedy, particularly as I mainly write darkly satirical stuff. I want people to laugh and then break their hearts. Many of my favourite authors do this so well – get you laughing before delivering the punch to the gut. George Saunders and Lorrie Moore, to name two.
MD: Though this novel is set mostly in Vancouver, it is also set in other locations around the world. Has your personal experience of travelling or living in different places influenced this work?
ZG: Yes, definitely. I mentioned Ireland already. I have also been to China and Australia, and Germany a number of times, though obviously not in 1969 when the Stuttgart chapter is set. Then only place in the novel I haven’t been is Helsinki, but I do have a bit of an obsession with Finland – it’s on my bucket list if we ever get to travel again.
MD: Your novel explores motherhood in all its complexity. “Becoming a mother had just made me want to kill people,” you write. Throughout the novel, there are multiple references to mothers eating their own babies, as well as experiences of abortion. How did you manage to write about the darker elements of motherhood, an experience that is often glorified, with such delicate nuance and rawness?
ZG: Motherhood does make you want to kill people – sometimes even yourself. (I don’t recall more than one mother in the book wanting to eat her own baby, though!) Procreation is an animal act. The job of parenting begins afterwards and loads of people are really bad at it. Also, you can sacrifice so much and be left with nothing but a kick in the teeth. We aren’t often told the brutal truths about motherhood — I love my son to the moon and back, as the little book about the baby hare goes, but being a mother, being a parent, is a terrifying responsibility and a carving away of a part of yourself, especially if you’re a woman of creative ambition. Ferrante wrote about this so brilliantly. How did I manage to do it, though, write about in the way I did? Mainly because I am not Lucy – I am not the mother who left, the person who didn’t want to be a mother. But I can imagine being her, this other self. Fathers leave and people are all, meh, been there done that. A mother leaves and it’s somehow unnatural.
MD: This novel contains an immense amount of references – to pop culture past and present, history, art, literature. Why did you make this creative choice?
ZG: Haha – it’s not so much a creative choice, but the way my mind works. Once I’m immersed in something –this novel, all my previous short stories — everything I read, hear, see, or experience all of a sudden seems relevant. It’s as if all these strands through time and space join together and become the web my narrative is caught up in.
MD: How do you write structure? Specifically, in this novel, the structure feels organic and intuitive, but is very non-linear. Did you conceptualize the structure before you began writing, or did it emerge later?
ZG: I thought I had a working structure until my dear editor/publisher, Nicole Winstanley at Penguin, sent me her notes on the initial draft. I definitely didn’t want a linear structure, but the reader needed to be able to follow Lucy through time and space. I’m so happy you say it “feels organic and intuitive,” as that is exactly what I was aiming for.
MD: The Beguiling is rich in themes involving the body, motherhood, death, grief, stories within stories, and many more too nuanced to convey. How do you write theme into your work?
ZG: The way I wrote the novel, that same way I write my longer stories, is a kind of patchwork method, like a paper mâché relief map of an island with a volcano in the centre. The themes accrue, appear slowly, layered in. I never set out with a “theme” in mind; I write more to an idea, a concept, and an investigation – in this case, confessions. Death and grief were there from the very beginning, but motherhood, and then the body emerged later.
MD: Some folks would characterize your work as magical realism. Do you identify with that label? Are you a fan of reading magical realist literature?
ZG: Except for a few of my shorter, fable-like stories, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything strictly magic realist – a magic realist story or novel exists within its own universe with its own set of rules. I like to call what I do The Grounded Fantastical – my narratives inhabit the real world as believably as I can make them do so, and then I introduce the more hyper-realist and off-kilter elements. I’m a fan of anything that’s interesting, from the broad social realism of Ferrante to the centuries-spanning multi-universe of David Mitchell, from the glinting-like-knife satirical wit of Muriel Spark to the speculative genius of Ted Chiang. Andre Alexis’s poignant, funny, and philosophical Giller-Prize-winning novel Fifteen Dogs is a personal fave. I am a fan of anything weird and wonderful.